2 Hrs., 24 Mins.
The Devil's Advocate
evin Lomax (Keanu Reeves), the Florida defense attorney at the center of The Devil’s Advocate (1997), is ferociously immoral when we meet him for the first time. The movie begins with him defending a schoolteacher who’s been accused of pedophilia. Kevin discovers, shortly after the all-important hearing starts, that his client is guilty. But so intent on “winning” and reputation-boosting is he that he
does something diabolical rather than take the high road. To undercut the credibility of the victim, a plainly traumatized middle-schooler (Heather Matarazzo), he offers evidence of childish little white lies she’s told here and there and even pulls out a jokey drawing she sketched of her former teacher. Nothing Kevin offers makes anything the girl says suddenly unbelievable to us. But he knows that it’s enough to sway the jury of his native Gainesville. Expectedly, the defendant, sure to prey on more, is freed. Kevin’s young reputation as a lawyer who never goes home with his tail between his legs — something made more impressive, given his propensity to defend low-lives — grows. Goes Kevin, at one point, “Lose? I don't lose. I win. I’m a lawyer.”
In The Devil’s Advocate, famous by now for being a cross between a post-Rosemary’s Baby (1968) occult thriller and a The Firm (1993)-like pulse-pounder, Kevin will eventually be noticed by a New York City law firm owned by a serpentine man named John Milton (Al Pacino) (known to everyone besides Kevin and his wife as Satan) and become one of its leading attorneys. Most of the movie, a long-feeling 144 minutes, is dedicated to Kevin’s discovery of the demoniacal truth, and the realization that his bad fortune is a repercussion of his perennial immorality.
You’d think Kevin would be at least a little suspicious that something is afoot from the get-go. Milton has an uncanny ability to speak any language, a Disney villain cackle, seems to appear at the eeriest of times, and has the same name of the author of 1667’s Paradise Lost. His getting the job also comes with a lavish three-bedroom apartment; the pay is excessive. Kevin’s wife, the permed, then sleekly bobbed Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), has visions in which all the firm's wives double as demons when they’re not trying on dresses; later on swears Milton, in the guise of the devil, has sexually assaulted her; and, about midway through the movie, begins losing her mind. Kevin thinks she’s just having a rough go adjusting to city life. When Kevin’s God-fearing mother (Judith Ivey) sees Milton for the first time, she reacts like a vampiress slathered in holy water trying to keep her cool. There are other sinister subplots that make way that I won’t get into that also throw fodder on the pyre of doubt. It takes until about the last act of the film, when Kevin gets a long-winded explanation around what’s really going on, though, that our hero begins to grasp that this is all very abnormal.
That we know from the beginning that Milton is the devil — and not just because the advertisements and promos leading up to the movie spoiled this for anyone even vaguely interested in seeing it — creates something of a chemical imbalance. What the feature, which has been stylishly directed by Taylor Hackford, seems to be aiming to do is not present us with a jarring, memorable twist but rather fulfill the horror archetype of an awful suspicion proving itself true. Such a thing worked for antecedents like the earlier-mentioned Rosemary’s Baby. But The Devil’s Advocate, taking its time to divulge anything conclusively, feels inert, in a way. We have so much of the film figured out early on, but the rest of the movie incongruously takes forever to line up with what we’re certain about.
It never drags. Hackford gets occultist glamour just right; Reeves and Theron are constantly clucking like vexed soap-opera characters; and Pacino, so good at chewing on scenery, masticates everything, from an aside to a dramaturgic monologue, like everything were one big Charleston Chew. But does The Devil’s Advocate work exactly as a horror movie, a legal drama, a morality tale? On all fronts, it’s trifling. It's the kind of feature that knows it has a good beach read of a story and, because of that, puts most else in service to the narrative. It’s compulsively watchable and has some neat visuals, too; the ending, which will bring to mind the now-infamous structure of Jacob’s Ladder (1990), has a nice lopsidedness to it. But The Devil’s Advocate is deficient in most areas: not scary, dramatically urgent, or fiendishly funny enough. But what a premise. C+